Does Kansas City Need Rail Transit?
After downtown voters rejected a taxing district for the expansion of Kansas City’s streetcar, rail proponents are looking for a “sellable” plan for streetcar expansion. To rail supporters, any future transit plan must include rail. As the Star put it:
“Good, smart transit—a mix of buses rails, and other people movers—is a vital component of any successful city.”
But does a city really need a streetcar, or for that matter any type of light rail, to be successful?
Certainly many cities in the United States, more than 50, have some form of fixed rail transit. The largest rail systems are the New York City Subway and the Chicago L, but many small cities like Kenosha, Wis., Little Rock, Ark., and Tucson, Ariz., also have light rail or streetcars. However, many cities, large and small, do not have rail transit. Cities like Honolulu, San Antonio, Orlando, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati have been popular cities to work and play in for many years without much or any fixed rail. These cities, and many others like Kansas City, rely on bus systems.
There’s no reason why Kansas City cannot continue to rely on buses. Whether it’s rapid transit or simply providing service to wide areas, buses are capable of meeting cities’ needs in most situations. For example, the Chicago Transit Authority’s bus system had more than 314 million boardings in 2012. KCATA only had around 16 million boardings that year. The limits of KCATA’s bus system is yet to be reached.
While rail systems may be necessary in cities with significant congestion and population densities, nowhere does Kansas City have population or traffic to make rail necessary. And while it is not necessary, rail has its drawbacks, paramount of which is cost. For instance, Kansas City’s proposed streetcar expansion (less than 10 miles of routes) costs were more than double the entire capital spending on KCATA’s 250-plus bus fleet from 1992 to 2002.
Rail supporters contend that rail transit creates development, drives density, and is necessary to make Kansas City an attractive city for people to live in. But much of that belief is based on anecdotal evidence from successful cities with rail, usually ignoring places where rail has failed to drive development. Cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Saint Louis have seen little regeneration from their rail lines, some of which cost more than a billion dollars.
Kansas City needs efficient transit that serves the community. It does not need rail to be successful, and residents should not let city officials with status anxiety waste hundreds of millions just to say Kansas City has rail.